Making Sense of the Alt-Right, by George Hawley

Matthew Feldman praises a sharp and clear-sighted examination of the new extreme forms of right-wing politics in the US

October 12, 2017
Austin, Texas, USA - November 19, 2016: A group of 'White Lives Matter' demonstrators protest just south of the Capitol grounds
Source: iStock

Hot on the heels of his major 2016 intervention, Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, George Hawley has released a kind of follow-up study on the nascent neo-Nazis and ethno-nationalists forming the fascistic core of the so-called Alt-Right movement. Intended for an American audience in light of its country-specific references, this slimmer book provides the first in-depth study of a movement equally misunderstood and seductive; the latter, it seems, not just for racists and internet trolls, but for 24-hour news cycles. While no doubt swiftly put together – interviews with leading protagonists range from October 2016 to February 2017 – Hawley’s six main chapters betray neither the analytical superficiality nor the sloppiness that often come from speed-writing.

Even so, the remarkable speed of events in American politics over the past year means that the invariable six months’ production time for quality academic monographs already presents, in places, a dated context. Gone from the Trump administration is Steve Bannon, the Svengali of what Hawley calls the “Alt-Lite” – in essence far-right nationalists falling short of the full-fat white supremacism characterising the much smaller Alt-Right proper. Likewise his concluding assertion that the Alt-Right “at present cannot be classified as a violent movement”: the chaos at Charlottesville on 11-12 August put paid to that, exemplified by the murder of Heather Heyer and the hospitalisation of 19 other counter-protesters. Alt-Right activists were at the centre of violence across that weekend, of which the car-ramming attack was the most vicious.

Making Sense of the Alt-Right is light on prognostications, and is all the better for it. The focus is instead placed upon the recent trajectory of this youthful movement, one “totally distinct from conservatism as we know it” and “atomised, amorphous, predominately online and mostly anonymous”. Although he doesn’t go so far as to label the group Fascists – which, for my money, they surely are – Hawley is content to describe the Alt-Right as racist and white nationalist, purveyors of an “extremist ideology” whose “significant figures…want to see the creation of a white ethnostate in North America”.

That is unmistakable by looking into those befouled corners of social media (Twitter, yes, but especially Reddit and 4chan) where this “Grand Troll Army” mainly coagulates. The racial hatred and anti-Semitic vulgarity are astonishing, even for seasoned analysts of right-wing extremism. Yet even they might not appreciate the full trajectory adduced here. After a whistle-stop tour of extreme-right predecessors, Hawley identifies a more “intellectual” and ideologically wide-ranging “first wave” Alt-Right emerging around 2008, four years before Richard Spencer popularised the term (initially as “Alternative Right”). While continuities between waves might have been more clearly delineated, there is no doubt that “traditional” activists ceded ground to an online explosion of trolls and race-haters whose use of humour, if that is the right word, is certainly novel for the radical right.

These and other well-developed points, like the allegedly greater hostility felt towards conservatives than progressives by the Alt-Right, make this readable study relevant well beyond its target audience. Excluding images, save for a solitary word cloud, is a shame, not least given the Alt-Right’s outrageous meme culture. Yet these, too, are becoming increasingly familiar online, as the movement continues to grow – if not mellow, or mature.

Matthew Feldman co-directs the Centre for Fascist, AntiFascist and Post-Fascist Studies at Teesside University.

Making Sense of the Alt-Right
By George Hawley
Columbia University Press
232pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780231185127
Published 17 October 2017

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