What is the alt-right, and do some conservatives have the wrong definition of it? Hugh Hewitt and NRO’s Jonah Goldberg got into a social-media dispute over these questions, so the two hashed it out on Hugh’s show this morning in what might be the most interesting dissection of conservatism you’ll hear this week. Jonah has spent many years at odds with what he’s now calling the “core alt-right,” and tells Hugh that many of those being identified as alt-right today are being unfairly labeled — and some are mistakenly adopting the label without understanding its provenance.
So what does the “core alt-right” represent? “The one thing they all agree on,” Jonah says, “is what they call racial realism, or racialism, which is just a social science sounding term for racism. … the one thing they all agree on is that we need to organize this society 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.”
If you don’t agree with that philosophy — if you’re animated more by border security, national security, and a tougher trade policy — then you’re not really alt-right, Jonah argues. Even those who want to see the Republican establishment destroyed aren’t alt-right; they just share that goal in common, but not the core philosophy that drives it. Jonah wants people on the Right to draw that distinction clearly, in order to once again marginalize the racists:
HH: So there you have it, Jonah. We have been having a Twitter back and forth, and I actually don’t think we disagree. We just disagree maybe on a statement of the facts. Would you define the alt right?
JG: I know what you’re about to do. And then you’re going to say well, there’s this other version of the alt right. I am willing to defer to the definition of the alt right that the people who created and lead the alt right movement use, which is an, the one thing that unites them, Jared Taylor was on Diane Rehm the other day. Jared Taylor is a leading racist…
HH: Good. Please.
JG: …a member of the white alt right. And he says that there are a lot of different views among the alt right. Some are Christian, some are Odinists. Some are this, some are that. But the one thing they all agree on is what they call racial realism, or racialism, which is just a social science sounding term for racism. They believe that, if you read Richard Host (sp), if you read Richard Spencer at the, who leads an alt right think tank, if you actually read the people who created the term, who have been pushing this stuff, the one thing they all agree on is that we need to organize this society 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. And I take them at their word, that that’s the stuff that they believe. And I think rather than poisoning or blurring that distinction, we should take them at their word and say we want nothing to do with any of that. And I know that you want nothing to do with any of that. I don’t dispute that for a moment. Where I disagree with you is this idea that we should sort of talk about this broader alt right that is just for the wall, or likes Donald Trump. No. What we should say is this is not your group to them, too. These are not disaffected tea partiers. These are people who we have a fundamental, first principle disagreement with. And any movement that has them in it, doesn’t have me in it, and vice versa.
HH: I agree 100% with that. Now does the term alt right get used exclusively in that fashion?
JG: No, which is one of the things that we should be doing, is we should be helping sharpen the distinction, not blur the distinction. I agree with you. There are a lot of people who don’t know what the alt right is. I live in these swamps. I’ve been having these fights for 20 years. I didn’t hear the term alt right until Donald Trump came up. But I know a lot of the people behind the alt right, because I’ve been getting it, they’ve been attacking me and then saying nasty anti-Semitic stuff to me since I started working at National Review. I mean, people are like, the guys at VDARE and these other places, they’ve all coalesced around this idea of the alt right, and it is not a coalitional idea where they want to be part of the conservative movement. It’s that they want to replace the conservative movement.
HH: And they have to be driven out of the Republican Party.
HH: I’m speaking as a partisan now. As William F. Buckley led the effort to drive the Birchers out of the party, so must genuine conservatives drive out what you and I agree is the core alt right.
HH: In the process of doing that, I do not want people who are not familiar with how you and I believe it to be understood by the people who invented the term to think that they are being exiled. That is my fear, because I believe a lot of people, and I’ve seen it everywhere I go, say they are alt right, and they don’t know that Jonah Goldberg would then classify them as supremacist.
JG: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily classify them as supremacists, either. I would classify them as wrong.
JG: They’re using the term wrong. And in politics, you know, specifically, you know, I wrote a whole book which you were very kind to about the importance of labels and why they matter, and the importance of ideology and why it matters, and that we shouldn’t fall into this thing that labels don’t matter. Labels matter a great deal. The labels you choose for yourself matter a great deal. And sometimes, people choose their labels incorrectly. And so rather than say, rather than work from the assumption that someone says they’re an alt-righter, and say well, you know, I don’t know that that means you’re a racist, I would say well, what did you, you know, educate them. And people need to be educated about this.
I had a conversation with a couple of people at the Minnesota state fair about this phenomenon, and agree with Jonah. He mentions in the second half of the interview (you can read the full transcript here) that prior to the emergence of cost-free publishing on the Internet, the race-driven ideologues and the Birchers on the Right had no platforms on which to publish, in large part because of William F. Buckley’s famous purge. The term “alt-right” originates, I believe, from the Usenet group structure (alt.right) where those elements began organizing in the early days of the Internet as an alternative to National Review, Heritage Foundation, and other conservative institutions that controlled the dialogue.
The biggest problem with this sudden fascination with the alt-right is that it ignores a much larger, much more significant movement: populists on the Right that have no connection to racial politics but who are motivated instead by economics. That’s the group ignored by Republican leadership for far too long, a danger about which only a handful of Republicans warned, the most prominent of which (before 2015) was Rick Santorum. That’s the real core of Donald Trump’s support, not the traditional alt-right movement.
Salena Zito, one of the best reporters on heartland politics in the business, spelled out the distinction two weeks ago:
The Gallup analysis, based on 87,000 interviews over the past year, shows that while economic anxiety and Trump’s appeal are intertwined, his supporters for the most part do not make less than average Americans (not those in New York City or Washington, perhaps, but their Main Street peers) and are less likely to be unemployed.
The study backs up what many of my interviews across the state found — that these people are more concerned about their children and grandchildren.
While Trump supporters here are overwhelmingly white, their support has little to do with race (yes, you’ll always find one or two who make race the issue) but has a lot to do with a perceived loss of power.
Not power in the way that Washington or Wall Street board rooms view power, but power in the sense that these people see a diminishing respect for them and their ways of life, their work ethic, their tendency to not be mobile (many live in the same eight square miles that their father’s father’s father lived in).
Thirty years ago, such people determined the country’s standards in entertainment, music, food, clothing, politics, personal values. Today, they are the people who are accused of creating every social injustice imaginable; when anything in society fails, they get blamed.
The places where they live lack economic opportunities for the next generation; they know their children and grandchildren will never experience the comfortable situations they had growing up — surrounded by family who lived next door, able to find a great job without going to college, both common traits among many successful small-business owners in the state.
These Trump supporters are not the kind you find on Twitter saying dumb or racist things; many of them don’t have the time or the patience to engage in social media because they are too busy working and living life in real time.
In order to regain its foothold in American politics, conservatism has to recognize the issues that matter to these people and provide real answers to their problems. In order to do that, we have to make bright-line distinctions between these voters and the alt-right fringe. Lumping them together does no favors to either conservatism or these voters — but it sure makes the media happy.