Neither is this kind of self-imposed vocabulary restriction particularly helpful analytically. The Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and the Cambodian Khmer Rouge are (or were) all violent racist movements — and using the specific names instead of referring to them as “violent racists” does not seem to have been much of an obstacle to recognizing them as such. They’re all also distinct historical phenomena, and our understanding of them would not be enhanced if we insisted on using the same generic description for all of them. The connections and affinities between the alt-right and other white nationalist groups may help readers understand why this latest iteration of bad ideas is dangerous, but people concerned to oppose it will also need to understand the differences.
Especially when dealing with an evolving and multifaceted phenomenon such as the alt-right, insistence on hewing to some older label, such as white nationalist, is likely to end up being a cognitive handicap. Among those self-applying the alt-right label, for instance, are some people associated with “GamerGate” — an online movement defined largely by a shared sense of rage that women have opinions about video games. Progressives often talk about “intersectionality” — the idea that the superficially disparate causes of various marginalized groups turn out to be connected and interdependent. In the weird soup of ideas being marketed under the brand name “alt-right,” we find a dark reflection of this: There are unreconstructed white nationalists in the mix, but you’ll also find pseudo-intellectuals spouting bastardized evolutionary psychology cribbed from “pickup artist” websites, college students looking for a way to thumb their noses at campus pieties and a whole variegated galaxy of other fringe ideologies looking for a bigger tent to call home. Deciding in advance to view this Frankenstein coalition through a single lens — “it’s just white nationalism with a new coat of paint!” — is ultimately a way of ensuring you’ll be baffled as the movement’s ideas and agenda are shaped over time by the interplay of these different factions. It also makes it more difficult to understand how the alt-right is appealing to a broader audience than those traditional white supremacist groups — which may conceivably involve factors more complex than a snappy new name.