What is the ‘alt-right’? A beginner’s guide

Caitlin Dickson
Breaking News Reporter

A political movement most Americans have never heard of is suddenly in the spotlight, thanks to Donald Trump — who has hired one of its leading spokesmen to run his campaign — and Hillary Clinton, whose speech planned for Thursday afternoon is expected to denounce it.

It’s the “alt-right,” a loose aggregation of bloggers, radio hosts, think tanks and activists that emerged from the “white nationalist” movement of the 1980s and 1990s. It occupies positions on the far right of American politics, but it is not primarily about the issues that motivate mainstream conservatives, such as taxes or government spending. Instead, it postulates that the culture of white America is under attack, and sees itself as its defender.

Trump has for much of his campaign flirted with “alt-right” themes, mostly through retweets, some of which he later disavowed. When former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke — a major figure in the “alt-right” world — urged his supporters to back Trump, the candidate maintained, implausibly, he didn’t know anything about Duke before grudgingly disavowing the support.

But with the hiring of Breitbart Media chairman Steve Bannon as CEO of his campaign, Trump has embraced someone at the heart of the movement, who boasted of turning Breitbart.com into “the platform of the alt-right.” Duke himself celebrated the hiring with the boast: “We’ve taken over the Republican Party,” although presumably the party’s mainstream leadership would disagree.

There are, of course, many strains of thinking under the “alt-right” umbrella. Some factions are preoccupied with a return to “traditional values,” while others espouse a philosophy called “Human Biodiversity”: the belief that there are significant biological differences between people of different races, which justifies treating them differently. (The other name for this is “scientific racism.”) Anti-Semitism is common, in various forms, ranging from Holocaust denial to full-bore denunciations of Jews as agents of the collapse of white Christian society. Bannon, personally, has not been accused of anti-Semitism, however.

The common thread, however, that connects members of these different factions is a shared desire to protect Western civilization from what many refer to as “white genocide.” This manifests in opposition to things like immigration and multiculturalism, as well as a steadfast aversion to political correctness and to establishment politics of all kinds, including Republican.

From left, Andrew Anglin, The Daily Stormer; Richard Spencer, The Alternative Right; Jared Taylor, American Renaissance; Matthew Heimbach; David Duke; Milo Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon. (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Facebook, Getty Images, Reuters)

The term “alt-right” was coined in 2008 by Richard Spencer, who runs the National Policy Institute, a white nationalist think tank. Spencer founded the influential Alternative Right blog in 2010 to define the movement’s core principles.

The term represented a “shallow rebranding” of white nationalism, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist groups. “They don’t want to be identified as white nationalists anymore,” she said. “People associate that with white supremacy, which is what it is, so instead they changed it to ‘alt-right.’”

And with that, Beirich said, the movement quickly made its way from the fringe “into right-wing politics.”

“They’re self-mainstreaming,” she said. “But it should be called out for what it is, which is just pure racism.”

Spencer’s own reasons for supporting Trump seem to directly reflect the alt-right’s central “white genocide” fears.

Asked by a reporter at the Republican National Convention about the possibility that some of Trump’s policy proposals, such as banning Muslims from entering the country or abolishing birthright citizenship, might be unconstitutional, Spencer replied, “Who cares? The whole point is that we’ve got to survive.”

“Whether something is constitutionally legal I could give a s*** to be honest. Survival is more important than law,” he continued, adding, “power is what matters.”

Other key “alt-right” figures include Andrew Anglin, who endorsed Trump for president on his neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer almost immediately after Trump announced his candidacy last June, and Jared Taylor, a prominent white nationalist leader who has long promoted eugenics and racial segregation through his American Renaissance magazine and now Amren.com.

Back in January, Taylor lent his voice to thousands of pro-Trump robocalls in Iowa sponsored by the white nationalist American Freedom Party in which he told voters, “We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture.”

Yet, ahead of Clinton’s speech on Thursday, Taylor dismissed “the attempt to link Donald Trump to the alt-right [as] a standard lefty campaign technique.”

“Find someone with certain views who supports your opponent and then suggest your opponent shares those views,” Taylor told Yahoo News. “It is illogical and unfair to act as if Mr. Trump is responsible for the opinions of all of his supporters.”

There’s also Matthew Heimbach, who’s been widely regarded as the future of white nationalism since his senior year at Towson University in 2013, when he gained national attention (including from this reporter) for establishing the school’s first white student union. This April, the 25-year-old was caught on video shoving and shouting racial epithets at an African-American protester during a Trump rally in Louisville, Ky.

And James Edwards, host of The Political Cesspool radio program, which, according to the statement of principles on the show’s website, “stands for the Dispossessed Majority” and promotes “a philosophy that is pro-White.”

Edwards caused a firestorm for the Trump campaign back in March when he promoted a 20-minute interview with Donald Trump Jr., which the candidate’s son insisted he would “never have done” had he been aware of Edwards’ white nationalist views.

Yet by July, Edwards had managed to get an all-access media credential for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he interviewed several GOP members of Congress and a Trump campaign official. According to the progressive, nonprofit media watchdog Media Matters for America, “Edwards pointed to his attendance at the convention as evidence that he and his radio program are going ‘mainstream.’”

For almost a year, “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos has been at the helm of Breitbart News’ tech section. An outspoken adversary of all things politically correct, Yiannopoulos has used the Internet as a platform to take on everything from feminism to gay rights — despite being a homosexual himself. In January, he created the Yiannopoulos Privilege Grant, a scholarship fund “exclusively available to white men who wish to pursue their post-secondary education on equal footing with their female, queer and ethnic minority classmates.” And last month, he was permanently banned from Twitter after he launched a racist harassment campaign against African-American actress Leslie Jones.

Apart from Bannon, none of these figures has any role in the Trump campaign, which has harnessed some of their energy and themes without specifically embracing them. And they do the same.

“They don’t necessarily think Trump is one of them, but he creates a space for them,” said Pete Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way and author of the blog Right Wing Watch. He notes that Duke, Spencer, Anglin and others who have endorsed Trump have qualified their support by saying they don’t agree with everything he says.

“I do not believe he would solve all or even most of the problems we are facing, but he is absolutely the only candidate who is even talking about anything at all that matters,” wrote Anglin shortly after Trump launched his campaign. “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people. He is also willing to call them out as criminal rapists, murderers and drug dealers.”