Two Notes, Wrestling with the Alt-Right’s Ideas
I’m worried that, due to some convergences in my overall political philosophy and temperament with some of the background worldviews of the “Alt Right” movement in the West, I might be more similar in thinking to the Alt Right than is appropriate to be, than I would hope to be. I hope that I am wrong, and that I am indeed just a culturally conservative American realist-nationalist like, say, Teddy Roosevelt. But I feel I must at least be honest in this inquiry, provided here in the dying format of “Notes.”
“YOU HAVE MORE IN COMMON WITH THE ALT-RIGHT THAN WITH THE LIBERTARIANS”
For a few weeks, a friend and colleague-in-thought has been metaphorically whispering in my ear- “you have more in common with the alt-right than you do with libertarians.” That statement has made me pause, first in denial, then in confusion, then in realization, and finally in terror, whenever it comes to mind. Am I Alt-Right? Do I just claim to be a political realist and cultural traditionalist and American nationalist, and really share nothing in common with these neo-Nazi thugs and losers? Am I part of the problem? Is all this really something I’m a part of?
I’m taken by the thought and horrified by the implications. But in time I convince myself otherwise- I’m nowhere near these people, hold nothing like their racist resentments or their bones-deep prejudices, I avoid their publications like the plague. I happen to be on the same side and wavelength as they are on certain issues, not out of sympathy for their causes, but out of agreement with others like Robert Kaplan, Michael Lind, and Ross Douthat, who are not particularly sympathetic to Alt-Right ideas but happen to align with them nonetheless out of a broader realist/conservative/nationalist context that was once more prevalent than it is now. (I’d argue, actually, that the current association of things like nationalism and “Western heritage” with kooks like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mencius Moldbug, American Renaissance Magazine, and friends, is more due to the center/center-left’s abdication of those things in favor of more cosmopolitan ideals; the Alt Righters took advantage of the vacuum and monopolized the terms.)
Anyway, I read Joseph Bernstein’s exquisitely well-researched Buzzfeed News essay “Alt-White: How the Breitbart Machine Laundered Racist Hate,” and found it interesting. A couple of quick observations: first, it’s absolutely clear that Bannon, Milo, Marlow, Bokhari, Yarvin, Saucier, and all of them are living in a self-righteous bubble, unquestioning of any of their assumptions, fighting a fight they believe passionately to be right. It’s equally clear that, far from being blinded into delusion and folly, they remain clear-eyed and entrepreneurial enough to rationally and strategically exploit the online media climate in ways few other political operative/activist networks have been able to do. Finally, there are real divisions in the Alt-Right- it would seem that the Bannon/Milo/Bokhari spokesmen and figureheads, like Trump, are primarily driven by cultural resentments against the left, and a Nixonian willingness to act on them unmoored from any moral constraints to exploit real divisions; whereas the actual white supremacist/identitarian bloggers and editors don’t seem to command anywhere near so large an audience, but are a driving force and faction in the broader Alt-Right, existing in sufficient numbers to provide Milo’s foot-soldier following.
But that last factor- the blurry line and tacit alliance between those who may well be without a racist bone in their bodies, but who harbor deep cultural resentments towards the modern left; with those actual “deplorables” who are beyond resentful and actively identitarian, desirous of a white ethnostate and actively racist against nonwhites- that is a factor that cannot be ignored.
At a personal level, I think I’ve skimmed over it too long, not realizing its full implications. A Republican Party and American center/center-right/right that operationally now includes Alt-Right operatives as planners and voices at the table, rather than just that crazy uncle in the attic/coalition who you don’t kick out but you don’t pay attention to either, is a Republican Party even more morally compromised than it’s been in the decades of the Southern Strategy and the Religious Right and talk radio and xenophobia. This is a party that, as Chris Ladd might say, is in thrall to powerful factions that no longer bother to decry racism anymore.
(For the record, I don’t think this represents anywhere near the majority of the still-Reaganite/Gingrichite/Bushite/Romneyite GOP operative network; but that conservative GOP must now deal with this anti-establishment swell in ways I’m not sure it is capable of at the moment.)
Anyway, people like me- cultural conservatives, political realists, American nationalists- who are opposed to the excesses of modern American liberalism, its countercultural idealism, its historical amnesia, its epistemological hubris- people like me who nonetheless value the open and pluralistic society America has always sheltered, must tread carefully forward, lest we walk alongside these racist kooks on the Alt Right. Because my friend was right- we do look more like them than is comfortable to admit. And that’s something I’ll be thinking on and struggling with a lot moving forward.
So onto a look at the belief network I hold strongly in my worldview where convergence with Alt Right thought worries me most: the anthropological-political understanding of the communal/divided origins of human society.
DIVIDED COMMUNALISM, THE STATE OF NATURE
Ramon Lopez published an excellent piece in this fall’s issue of National Affairs, “Answering the Alt Right,” which is useful for understanding the nature of the problem, but in my view less useful in answering and resolving it. Here’s the passage where Ramon, paraphrasing Milo Yiannapoulos and Allum Bokhari’s manifesto “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt Right,” describes how the Alt Right’s factions generally view themselves:
“[Richard] Spencer, however, claims that the alt-right has nothing to do with neo-Nazis or white supremacy. He prefers to refer to it as “identitarianist,” which he describes as the belief that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life. The alt-right claims to defend white or European identity, not to oppress those with other backgrounds but in order to maintain and care for their own.
Bokhari and Yiannopoulos echo this view in their article: “[J]ust as [the alt-right] are inclined to prioritise [sic] the interests of their tribe, they recognize that other groups — Mexicans, African-Americans or Muslims — are likely to do the same.” The alt-right draws upon social psychology that highlights our tribal nature: We are all members of certain social groups, which fundamentally define who we are and incline us to support that group’s interest over the broader public good. Doing so is not simply natural but right — we are who we are, and are primordially bound to defend that state of being. Politics in a multicultural society is therefore a zero-sum contest among fundamentally competing identity groups.
This view leads the alt-right to call for firm divisions between identity groups within society.”
Except for those last three points- that there is no way out of personal identity, that identity politics need be zero-sum, and that there ought to be “firm divisions between identity groups within society” (read: legal segregation)- it would seem to me that most of the other points Spencer, Bokhari, and Yiannopoulos are suggested to have made, would be accepted by most political psychologists and, in fact, by other “identity politics” advocates on the left. Jason Willick over at The American Interest has written a few times something along the lines of “stirring identity politics among non-white people inspires a reaction of identity politics among white people,” and I would only amend this to say that it seems there is something of an identity politics simply endemic to the human condition among all people and groups.
The claims- that identity is the most fundamental aspect of political life, that people are inclined to support their own tribes, that social psychology influences all this heavily- all seem to be more or less accurate to me. If a “state of nature” exists, it’s not a “war of all against all” at the beginning of time that can be transcended by a social contract of reciprocal obligations- no, the “state of nature” would seem to be the enduringly violent, communal, vindictive, collective nature of man, expressed under whatever institutional condition, whereby we work in groups with those we affiliate with against those we don’t affiliate with. Identity is inseparable from affiliation (though it is also multiple and complex.) Faction, empirically observed as a principle and a reality across the spectrum of the human experience, is salted by the passions of love and hate that come with the territory of our natural connections to the ethereal group.
These Alt Right theorists oversimplify on the basis of race, of course- race/ethnicity/physiology is only one of many, many identity poles around which factions can coalesce, though it is probably one of the more powerful ones. More importantly, though, race is a fluid concept (and I don’t mean that in the way lefty constructivists talk about it as “something that doesn’t exist.”) Race is fluid in the fact that it just mixes, usually seamlessly and beautifully, and new genetic combinations in individuals and populations are cropping up all the time- just kind of the beauty of being physical beings as well as spiritual beings who can appreciate biology aesthetically, I suppose. Some people just don’t fit in any of these groups. I’m an example of racial mixing given my mixed Asian-European blood (did I ever say I’m a big fan of interracial marriage?) and that should throw wrenches into both the “race-isn’t-real” and the “race-is-everything” camps. (No equivalency morally, by the way- the race-is-everything Alt Right people are far worse than the left on this issue.) For a great illustration of how that dynamic plays out in ethnic trends in America, just read essays or books by Michael Lind on identity. The American “new man” concept is just fascinating, and far more fascinating than anything Richard Spencer cooks up while praying to the skull of Hitler or whatever.
But despite the wrongness of the Alt Right’s manipulations of the principle of group affiliation, I cannot deny that the principle itself is 1) apparently empirically sound and 2) rejected by most traditional American political theory, which tends to be less empiricist or anthropological, and more liberal-individualist-republican or class-based. And it is a principle that is generally either explicitly rejected or generally not considered by our somewhat more individualist and ideological cultural commentators and ruling elites. It seems to me that in the second half of the 20th Century, as Mark Lilla argued in his recent book, what had been developing in terms of notions of “national community” was discarded by American elite political operators in favor of various breeds of liberal-principled individualism. As Robert Putnam, Yuval Levin, and Charles Murray have all implicitly and perhaps unknowingly argued, the resultant social atomization and cultural decay has fueled new fervors towards otherwise unthinkable constructions of identity, etc., and the force of the Alt Right- while it clearly has its roots in the unholy marriage of the segregationist Southern right and imported European conceptions of ethno-nationalism, probably both activated after the Second World War and during the early Civil Rights Era- has been greatly amplified because of the dramatic social upheaval over the last several decades.
So I suppose what I’m trying, failingly, to say is that the Alt Right, for all their sins and evils and overemphasizations and overgeneralizations, is at the very least premised on a basic principle that many Americans understand but few put into institutional practice- that identity does indeed matter and conflict between identity groups is a normal consequence of identity’s mattering. And when you are blind to reality, reality will beat you every time. The Alt Right is un-American and racist for celebrating white identity politics and fighting to disenfranchise or delegitimize other groups, but it has its finger on the pulse of a basic unspoken reality that most small-“l” American liberals don’t admit much- that tribe matters and tribalism is a consequence of tribe. Only when you admit that 1) people have a legitimate and natural stake in their own group identity, and 2) the multiplicity of identities can create conflicts, then rather than throwing up one’s hands and wishing everyone were a 100% American or an End-of-History cosmopolitan, can you get down to the absolutely crucial work of containing the effects of passionate faction and working towards higher syntheses of identity, two of the great ongoing achievements of American small-“l” liberals in their soberer, more realistic iterations in centuries past.
I had planned a longer piece, but have probably already gotten myself into enough trouble with this one alone. Some other themes I’m thinking on below, though-
-Is America a nation with an idea, or an idea with a nation? If it is indeed a nation with an idea rather than a set of abstract principles, as I have taken many pains to argue, then what is the dividing line between us traditionalists and the Alt-Righters who completely reject any founding principles? Can such a line be drawn rationally, or must we always be vigilant? (I sense the latter.)
-Does the superficial convergence between my views with some of those of the Alt Right’s imply any guilt in me for happening to be in coalition with them? (This is a species of political question I am still trying to figure out, and it has a leftists/liberals counterpart as well.) Moreover, does the general viewpoint of so many pre-Cold War American statesmen- philosophically as temperamentally conservative as I, just as nationalist, just as realist, and just as cognizant of the enduring nature of group identification and group conflict- implicate, say, Alexander Hamilton as a proto-Alt Righter? (Hamilton, after all, was the arch-aristocratic conservative of his day, and famously wrote “the seeds of war are sewn thickly in the human breast.”) Or, as I hope, is the superficial convergence of viewpoints purely superficial?
In any case, conservatives of all stripes- save maybe doctrinaire neoconservatives and libertarians- do in fact have to wrestle with these notions and figure out what their relationship is to the Alt Right. (I suspect many honest philosophical conservatives will find more similarity than is comfortable- that ought to be worked around.) If we don’t actively explore the question, we’ll deserve any comparisons to the Alt Right left-leaners make of us upon hearing superficial similarities.
And those of us young conservatives beginning to fall under the Alt Right’s trance- just bear in mind what you’re doing. I’ll leave it at that.