From Pepe the Frog to Charlottesville: the rise of the alt-right

Saturday 28 October, 16:0017:15, ConservatoryUnderstanding America

The disturbing violence and explicit racism at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which claimed the life of anti-fa protestor Heather Heyer, has drawn international attention to the American ‘alt-right’. But what is this alt-right and how has it emerged? Donald Trump, at a press conference in response to events in Virginia, said: ‘When you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me.’ We might reply that it can’t be hard to define torch-carrying white nationalists chanting ‘blood and soil’.

However, the broader alt-right phenomenon is not so easy to pin down. Initially it was a loose term used to describe a hodge-podge of disparate ‘anti-PC’ internet crusaders, associated with anonymous online trolling culture, united by a shared antipathy to the cultural left and armed with nothing stronger than ironic memes and Pepe the Frog. They railed against feminism, egalitarianism, political correctness and multiculturalism. According to Angela Nagle, author of a new book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4 Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right, ‘it was always about transgressing liberal political correctness’. As it evolved, it has become more explicitly political. Some of Donald Trump’s most strident supporters self-defined as alt-right and were especially vocal in vituperatively attacking both liberal and conservative critics of his populist postures.

To confuse things further, leftish commentators increasingly use alt-right as a term of abuse, often to delegitimise a range of more benign causes. Free speech campaigners opposing campus censorship, those opposing identity politics or involved in Gamergate and critics of the more regressive aspects of contemporary feminism have all been promiscuously labelled as alt-right. What is indisputable is that over recent years, in a range of guises, this counterculture has captured the imagination of many young people, especially young men, albeit more likely online geeks than street fighters.

Was it, as some suggest, always inevitable that the alt-right meme would morph into virulent racism? After Charlottesville, will its virtual activists be alienated or incited by real-life violent extremism? While some alt-right supporters are explicitly xenophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic, is this any more than opportunistic rebranding by the perennial minority of KKK low-life bigots keen to capture the social media zeitgeist? Or does it, as some of its left-wing critics claim, represent a new form of American fascism, threatening a dangerous upsurge of ‘white’ supremacism?

Does the alt-right have a coherent ideology? Is it more of a product of the disintegration of a conservative movement that has suffered successive defeats in the culture wars, even though it commands the levers of government? Or is it, as others argue, an infantile reaction to a public sphere dominated by ‘virtue-signalling’ and PC posturing, an immature mirror-image reaction to divisive identity politics?